Sudanese History

Sudanese history
Figure 1.--The photo was taken in southern Sudan during 2003. The soldiers belonged to the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). The photo shows the impact of the war over the tribal peoples.

The modern Sudan or the area beyond the first Nile cataract. was known as Kush. Sudan through much of its history has been closely associated with Egypt. This began with Kush and pharonnic Egypt. It was conquered by the more advanced Egyptians who gradually advanced up the Bile. Some of the great mounments of ancient Egypt were built in Kush. A Cudshite dynasty conquered Egypt becoming the 25th Dynasty. They were conquered by the Assyriand (7th century BC). The Kushites withdrew up the Nile beyond the reach of the Assyrians and here survived for centuries. The Romans knew themn as Nubians. They became Chritisanized and survived the Arab invasions for a millenium. Sudan is an abreviation for the Arabic bilad as-sudan--"land of the blacks". The Nubians.Sudanese sdurvived in part by paying a tribute in slaves. Geography through the Nile River made Sudan a natual conduit from Equitorial Africa to the Mediterraneam and slaves were one of the primary item involved in this trade. The Koran condoned slacery, especially the enslaving of non-Muslims. The slave trade became am imporant part of the Sudanese econmmy. his brought them into conflict with both the Egyptians and British in the late-19th century. The British launched a major effort both to end the slace trade and to expand the Empire. One result was the Mhadist revoly (1880s). With indepencence, the Aran-dominated Sudanese goverment has no only turned a vlinf eye to slavery, but used it as a tool afainst Africans in the civil war. The Arab government has also been implicated with genocide in Darfur.


The Sudan as a result of its civil war has not been an easy place for archaeologists to work. The Royal Ontario Museum sponsored an expedition durig the 1990s to the Sudan led by Dr. Kryzstof Grzymski. They discovered hundreds of Paleolithic axes which have been dated to 70,000 years ago. They were found on east bank of the Nile, approximastely 70 miles south of Dongola. The axes suggest a sophisticated pre-Paleolithic society of Hominids in this area of Nile valley (northern Sudan). One poorly developed subject is the climate chasnge affecting the region. Archaeologists speculate that between 50,000 to 25,000 years ago the hand axes gradually gave way to highly variable chipped stone industries. The vsariability suggests f competing communities and tribal groups. Archaeologists believe that settled communities emerged along the Nile about 25,000 to 8,000 years ago. [Marks] Work at Wadi Halfa has led to the depiction of what is described as Khormusan culture. .


Sudan through much of its history has been closely associated with Egypt. This is understandable. Egypt was one of the great powers of the ancient world for not just centuries, but millenia. All the areas srrlnding Egypt were affected by it and draen into its orbit. Thuis was especially true of Nubia beuse areas o the east and west of Egypt were desolate desert. Thus it was unavoidable that Egyptian power n influence woukd be directed south along the Nile into Nubia. This began with pharonnic Egypt. Another major influence was geography. Nubia was located along the eastern fringe of the great trade route stretching along the open savannah south of the Sahara.


Egypt was one of the four great river valley civilizations. The great era of Egyptian civilization began with the uniting of the northern and southern kingdoms (about 3100 BC). The pharaohs of the united kingdom extend their control as far up the Nile (south) north as the first cataract, or te area of modern Aswan. This was important as the first cataract was as far up the Nile as a boat could navigate. Beyond this the Pharoh was limited in his ability to easly transport troops and supplies. Only over time as the power of Egypt grew was the kingdom able to extrend its reach further up the Nile. They pushed past the first cataract. Af first only raiding psrties penetrated to the north. Then they began to build fortified settlements.

Egyptian Control of Kush

Egypt was in control of the middle-reaches of the Nile as far north as the fourth cataract (1500 BC). This was an area known as Kush. (Some authors prefer Cush.) The Kushites were not as advanced culturally and were not orgabized as a inited kingdom capable of resisting the Egyptians militarily. This is now the location of Merowe. The Egyptians called this Area Kush. The Greeks called the proples south of Egypr Ethiopins. This includes the area of the modern states of Sudan and Ethiopia. Sudan late acquired the Roman (Latin) name Numbia. This was the area as far up the Nile as Khartoum. The area was noted for its gold mines. The name Nubia is thought to have originated from the word for gold (nub) in Mahasi. The Pharaohs began to build temples, monuments and boundary posts. These include some of Egypt's most powerful pharaohs. The great warrior pharaoh, Thutmose I, pushed further south than any previous pharaoh and leaves an inscription anout 50 miles south of Abu Hamad (about 1520 BC). Certainly the most momumental statement of Egyptian control was the four massive statues of Ramses II, carved in the sandstone cliff at Abu Simbel (about 1250 BC). (They wiuld be moved to save them from the waters of te Aswan High Dam.) The Kushites were not as culturally advanced as Egypt and over cenuries of Egyptaian rule adopted Egyptian culture. The Kushites were ethnically different, but the ruling class became thoroughly Egyptian culturally. Archaeologists mote a Kushite dynasty 9th century BC). Their capital was at Napata (near Merowe). It was culturally indestiguishable from Egypt. The Kushite at the time was Amen-Re. Kashta, the king of Kush, oversaw a court that was thoroughly Egyptian in style. His descendents conquered Egypt (early 8th century BC). When his descendants conquered Egypt, they were accepted as a new dynasty of pharaohs.

Egyptian Kushite Dynasty: The 25th Dynasty (730-656 BC)

The Kushite Kingdom gradually established theie autonomy and then began expanding north down the Nile. Kashta conquered upper Egypt (the area north of the first cataract including Abu Simbel) (about 750 BC). His son Piye (Piankhi) moved south and captures importsnt cities in Lower Egypt north to Memphis (about 730 BC). The Egyptian nobels in the Delta submitted to Piye. In control of Egypt, Piye retired to his capital at Napata in the south, also known as MeroŽ by the Persians. Piye built a great temple to Amen-Re. Piye found it difficult to mantain his hold on Egypt as rebellions broke out. Piye's brother, Shabaka, succeeded him (about 719 BC). Shabaka mounts a second major campaign to the north where Bochoris a descendant of the previous pharoah) had proclaimed himself pharoah. Shabaka defeated Bochoris and is believed to have had him burnt alive. Shabaka installed his court in the north at Thebes and Memphis to better rule Egypt. Shabaka after dispodsing of Bochoris appears to have faced little domestic oppodsition. The Kushites pious adherence to the cult of Amen-Re helped to cemnent domestic support. While the Kushite Dynasty did not face domestic opposition. it did face an external foe, the Assyrian Empire (1276-606 BC) at its peak. And the reach of the Assyrians and Egyotians overlapped in what is now called he Levant. The Hebrew kingdoms were two of the many peoples caught between these two great empires in Palestine and Phoenicia. Assyrian rule was both brutal and oppressive. Under King Sennacherib) there was a widespread rebellion in newly conquered lands (about 705 BC). Pharaoh Shebitku (Shabaka's nephew) decides to support the rebellions asainst Assyria. He leads an Egyptian army Memphis, but suffers s deveststing defeat. This opens Efypt itseld to invasion. Assyrian King Esarhaddon (son of Sennacherib) invades Egyt and seizes Memphis (663 BC). Esarhaddon thus seizes the Egyptian royal treasure as well as the harem . He claims the title 'king of Egypt'. The Assyrian army withdraws, and leaves Egypt in the hands of a vassal ruler. The Kushites managed to retake Memphis. The Assyrians mount a another military campaign (663). The Kushites were decicsively defeated. TheAssyrians not only takle Menphis, but take and plunder Thebes as well. Historians date the end of the 25th Dynasty a few years lsater (656 BC). The left pyramids following the Egyptian tradition. Most are located in one small section of the northern Sudanese desert.

Kushite Kingdom (656 BC- 4th century AD)

While the Asyrians ended the 25th Dynasty, it was not the end of the Kushites thenselves. The Kushites were driven out of Egypt, but retired southup the Nile beyond the reach of the Assyriuans. Here the Dynasty would last for a thousand years. They retsained Egyptian cultural forms, interring the royal family in Egyptian pyramids. The Kushite capital was at first based at Napata. And Egyptian nilitary expedition sacked Napata (about 590 BC). The Kushites moved further south to Meroe. The further south the Kushites are pushed, the more they become isolated. Egypt is conwqered by a sucessioin of foreign (Persians, Greeks and Romans) rulers. Kush is beyond their grasp, but Kushite cultures withers in isolatin nd the loss of the more productive northern lands. Techhnology declines. Pyramids begin to be built in brick instead of stone. The knowledge of writing disappears. An sacks Meoe, finzlly ending the Kushite Kingdom (4th century AD).

Christianity (6th-13th century AD)

The small Jewish Jewish Cult from Paestine gradually developed into Christisnity which despote persecution became the official religion of the Rmsn Empire (4th century AD). The Romans called Kush Nubia. Roman Egypt this became Chritisanized. The Ethiopia king is converted to Christianity by Frumentius. As a result, Chruistian influences grow in Nubia. Dongola, the main kingdom in Nubia, finally adopts Christianity as well (6th century AD). Beginning with Constsntine and the Council of Nicea , Roman Emperors try to standardize Christian theology. The king of Dongola is converted (sbout 543 AD). But he is coverted to the monophysite version of Christanity. And Nubia was beyond thecreach of Roman or Byzatne emperors or the Roman Church to suppress. Monophysite Christianity was afiliated with rhe Coptic Ghurch of Egypt and Ethiopia. Byzantine orthodox became estsablished Mukarra, a neighbouring kingdom in the south (569 AD). The Islamic outburst from Arabia first overwealms the Levant (7th cetury). The Arabs then turn east and west. Egypt and North Africa fall to the Arabs, cutting off Nubia and Ethiopia from the Chrisstisn West. An Arab army from Egypt invades (652 AD). The Numians manage to negotate a treaty with the Arabs. They agree to pay an annual tribute of 400 slaves and the Arabs turn back north. Numbia remsains Christian for centuries, but the trade routes mean that many Arab traders move south and Islsamic influences increase.

Islam (13th century- 1821)

Sudan means 'Land of the Black' from the Arabic word 'aswad'. This is a reference to the vast sub-Saharan lands where the Arabs and Egyptians used to obtain black slaves. Mali for the same reason used to be called French Sudan and modern Sudan was British Sudan.) The Muslim Mameluke rulers begin to extend their control south. Muslim raids south increased in intenity during the reign of Baybars (1270s). The Mamelukes end the annual slave tribute and place a Muslim on the throne of Dongola. Nubia is on the perifery of Muslim control. At times it is ruled by the impeial force controlling Rgypt, such as the Mamelukes. The Ottoman seize power (157). But effectively controlling Nunia was often beyond their reach. They had the capsability of invading, but this would have been very costly for a relstively unimportant, remote proivince. So fr much of thisd period, Nubia which the Arabs began to call Sudan, was left in the hads of tribal dynasties which recognized Mammeluke/Ottoman soverignity, but in fact wer largely autonomous.

Egyptian Rule: Muhammed Ali and the Khedivate (1821- )

Napolleon's Egyptin Campsaign (1797) helped to weaken Mamelule/Ottoman control of Egypt. The Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Mohammed Ali, soon began to exert his independence from the Ottoman sultan which he eventually proclaims (1821). He sens two armies south into Sudan, each army commanded by one of his many sons (1820). Both schieve sccess. They establish a military camp at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles (1821) The long narrow shape of the camp, coming to a point where the two rivers, gave it the look od an 'elephant's trunk' -- Khartoum in Arabic. Khartoum grows in size and becomes the capital of the capital of the Egyptian province of the Sudan. Thus Sudan came full circle, the southern province of Egypt as it was in anciebt times. Over time Egypt extends its reach beyond Khartoum and the Nile. The Egyptian seize control of Red Sea ports of Suakin and Mits'iwa (1846). Samuel Baker leads an army into the southern Sudan-- a huge area known as Equatoria (1869). He annexes the area in the name khedive of Egypt. The Khedive at the time was Ismail, a grandson of Mohammed Ali. The Egyptians had little ability to control the south. And the British influence on Ismail adversely affected his domestic power base. Ismail's increasingly secular rule was offenive to the more conservative southern tribes which beklieved fervently in sharia. Here a major issue was the slave trade. Coservative Muslims saw it as sanctioned by the Koran. The British put considerable pressure on Ismail to end the slave trade. The religious aspect was compounded by the economic importance of the slave trade to the Sufanese economy.

British Involvement

The British involvement in Sudan resulted from several important developments, first the building of the Suez Canal and second efforts to end the slave trade. First, Suez was a critical communcations and transport point in the Btitish imperisl system. The most important British colony wa India, aptly called the Jewel in the Crown. Egypt was important as a transit point for trade with India even before the construction of the Suez Canal. After the Suez Canal was opened (1869), Egyot became critical. And Egypt was interested in maintaining control of its rebellious southern area. This indirectly involved the British, especislly after Britain established a protectorate over Egypt. This did not make Egypt a British colony, but it did give Britain an important role in the Egyptain goverment. And it was a secularizing role which offened Islamicists in both Egypt and the Sudan. Second, important British leaderswanted to establish a continuous corridor of colonies from Capetown to Cairo. This was not a coherent British policy as Primeninisters Gladstome and Disreali differed on colonisal issues. Gladstone in particular wanted to limit the expabsion of the Empire. Suez and Egyp was ne thing. Sending British armies deep into Africa,m especially Sudan was aent matter. Other British leaders were strong advocates of te Capeton toCairo corridor. Third, the British in the 19th century launched into a major effort to end the Africn slave trade using the Royal Navy. At first the primary effort was in the Atlantic, but ny mid-century the British also launched efforts in the Indian Ocean. Sudan was involved in the slsave trade, bith the Indian Ocean slave trade and the trans-Saharan trade. This also brought the British into conflict with the Sudanese. The slave trade was an importnt part of the Sudanese economy. And Islamicists in the Sudan were firmly convinced that the Koran accepted slavery, especially the enslavement of non-Muslims as a fully moral practice.

Slave Trade

The slave trade in the Sudan has ancient origins. There is until the 19th century, however, only limited information on the dimensions of the slave trade. Geography was an important factor. The Sudan is composed of two different regions. The largely African, equitorial south and a Saharan north. The Blue and White Niles join in Sudan to provide a water route north to the Mediterannean. This is the only watrer route through the vast Sahara Desert. It is importsant because it provided a route throug which where African captives taken in the south could be readily marketed. Egypt itself was not a slave society, in part because the peasanty were basically serfs tied to the land. There were slaves in Egypt and other anient civilizations such as Greece and Rome. Unlike Egypt, these weee salave societies. And references to Nubians suggest that they enslaved in the Sudan or through Kushite slave markets. Some believe that Aesop was a Nubian. We certainly knew Nubian slaves. There are many references to Nubians in Roman manucripts. It must be remembered, however, thar slsavery in the ancient world was not a racial matter and thus Nubian did not equate with slave. Another complication is that most Africans in Rome were called Nubians, including those with no connection to Kush. We are not sure just how important Nubian slaves were to Rome. Give the ditance from Rome and the fact that Rome never occupied Kush/Nubia militarily, we suspect that Nubians made up a basically small proportion of the Roman slave population. Pehaps mpdern DNA studies will shed some light on this. The slave trade continued into the Christian era and then into the Muslim era. We know this because of the 652 treaty between the Kushites and Arab invaders under white Kish would pay an annual tribute. This may sound like a small number, but this was just the tribute and does not address the trade between Kush/Nunia and Egypt which was probably many time the number od Africasns delivered as tribute. Unfortunately the historical record is very limited until the arrival of the British and efforts to wipe out the slave trade (19th century). The British certsainly sharply reduced the slave trade, but did not end it. Even after independence (1956), the slave trade comtinued. And it became a factor in the civil war following independence. Press reports of the slasve trade in Sudan continue to this day.

The Mahdi (1881-98)

The khedive's desirng to gain control of the south, appoints General Chsarles "Chinese" Gordon as governor general of Equatoria (1873) His authority is extended to the entire Sudan (1877). Gordon puts his relentless energy to work gaining control of Sudan. Gordo works for 6 years to gsain control over rebelious tribes. Egyptian garrisons are establishes throughout the Sudan. When Goirdoin leaves for England, it looks like he has suceeded (1880). A year later, a charismatic tribal leader embued with Islam emerges in Sudan--Mohammed Ahmed who styled himself the Mahdi. He capitalizes on the widespreaddisdcontent anr resentment oward both the British snd Egyptians among the tribes. The Mahdi lived with disciples on an island in the White Nile. There he is inspired by the revelation that he is the long-awaited Mahdi. He procklsims his new role and calls for the creation of a strict Islamic state ryled by Shsaria. Egyptian authorities in Khartoum order his arrest. He and his small band of followers escape to the mountains. The Mahdi's skills and the religious fervor of his followers allow him to attack isolated Egyptian garrisons (1883). The Egyptians dispstch three sarmies to the Sudan, each of which are defeated. One is commanded by a Bitish general. He is able to take several importsnt tons, including El Obeid. Graduall Khartoum itself was threatened. Khartoum is populated by msny non-Sudanese civilians which face death at thevhands of the Mahdi and his followers. The British government headed by Primeminister Gladstone at the time is trying to limit the grot of the Npire. He does not want to send a British empire, dedspite increasing public pressure for sction. He decides to send General Gordon, but with very limited forces. Gordon sails down the Nile and reaches Khartoum (February 18, 1884). He sets up defenses with the small availavle force. Khartoum by this time is surrounded, except for the Nile. Gordon manages to evacuate about 2000 people (women, children and the sick). The Mahdi begins to besige the city (March 13). Girdom commands a small thorougly demoralized Egyptian garrison. The Mahdi cuts the telegraph and the British in Cairo have no communication with Gordon. He manages to hold out for 10 months. Gordon because of his work in China was an enormously popular figure. When the tegraph lines are cut, the Vritish papes begfin to demand Governent saxction. A reluctant Gladstone orders a relief mission to Khartoum, but does nor demand rapid action. Garnet Wolseley sails from London with an expeditionary force (September). The Mahdi's fanatic forces finally breach Goirdon's defenses and kill Gordon, massacring the starving troops and civiliand (Jsnuary 26). The British vanguard reaches Khartoum (January 28, 1885). They are 2 days too late and find a massacered civilian population. Wolseley's small army withdraws north. The surviving Egyptian garrisons in the Sudan attempt to make their way north. This leave the Mahdi in control of the Sudan. The Mahdi set up his camp around the small village of Omdurman. This was accross the Nile from Khartoum. From here he administered the Sudan as as Islamic state along the lines of the Great Caliphate. The Mahdi envisioned a movement that woukld recreate the Caliphate steaching from Persia to Spain, but he rules Sudan for only a short priod. He does not long survive Gordon and dies (June 1885). He appoits Abdullahi ibn Mohammed to succeeded him as caliph. Abdullahi is known simply as the Khalifa. The Khalifa rules Sudan for 13 years. He administers an Islamic state ruled by the military Sharia azlongthe lines of the caliphate. He attemts to expand and achieves some success in Ethiopia. The Khalifa did mot, however, have access to nodern weapons. The Anglo-Egyptian alliance did. Lord Herbert Kitchener who as a young officer was with Wolseley's leads a modern force south (1898). Armed wth artillery and machine guns, the expedition decimates the Khalifa's Mahdist forces at Omdurman. This restablishes British-Egyptian control of the Sufan.

Fashoda Incident (1898)

The Fashoda Incident was a potentially tragic diplomatic dispute between France and Britain at the end of the 19th century. Both countries were major participants in the 19th century European Scramble for Africa. Some British leades wanted to complete Cecil Rhodes's dream of a continuous strip of colonial possessions from Cape Town north to Cairo. France in contrast wanted overland route from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. The French Goverment (Third Republic) ordered Major J. B. Marchand with a small force from Brazzaville to move west and seize the needed territory (May 1, 1897). The Sudan at the time was Egyptian territory and not as British colony. The British were, however, involved because of their protectorate over Egypt and effort vto end the slave trade in Sudan. A British-led Egyptian force was in the process of retaking the Sudan from Mhadi's successor, the Khalifa. The Britiish Governent warned the French not to proceed with this enterprise. Major Marchand's small force crossed over 2,000 mi (3,200 km) of vrtually unexplored wilderness. Marchand's force reached Fashoda (now Kodok ) on the Nile in the southern Sudan (July 10, 1898). Marchand mansaged to repel a Mahdist attack. Hepaused at Fashoda, expecting a Franco-Ethiopian force to reinforce him from the east. Lord Kitchener's Anglo-Egyptian army defeated the principal Mahdist force at Omdurman in the north (September 2) Learning of the French incursion, Kitchener leads forces south (upriver).

Anglo-Egyptian Condominium (1899-1956)

The victory at Omdurman was achieved by a largely Egyptian army, led by senior British officers. The mission was to restore the Sudan to the Egyptian khedivate. The Sudan was administed by a Anglo-Egyptian partnership. Sovereignty was in fact shared by the British crown and the Khedive. The British and Egyptian flags flew side by side. There were problems in this joint arrangement. This was particularly the case after World War I when Egypt moved toweard independence and insisted on the incorporation of the Suydan into Egyptian territory. Britain while making major concessions toward independence, objected to incorporaring the Sudan with Egyot. Egyptisan units in Sudan stage attacks on the British (1924). Lee Stack, the British governor general of the Sudan is assasinated in Cairo. The British respond by forcing Egypt to withdraw its forces from the Sudan. The British governed the Sudan for 12 years without the Egyptians. With the rise vof the NAZIs in Germany, the British decided to placate the Egyptians. An Anglo-Egyptian treaty restored the Egyptian role (1936). British forces in the Sudan play a role in the East African campaign agsainst the Italians during World War II. The Egyptians do not participste in the campaign. There is in fsct considerable sympthy for the Axis in the Egyptian militsary. Disputes between the British and Egyptians continue after the War. King Farouk is furious when he learns that Britain had facilitated the establishment of a legislative council in the Sudan (1951). He unilaterally declares himself ruler of a united kingdom of Egypt and the Sudan. The Sudanese show little enthusism for Egyptian rule. And the King is overthrown by Naguib and other Young Officers (1952).

Independence (1956- )

General Muhammad Naguib upon seizing power in Egypt recognizes Sudan's right to self-determination (1952). Britain and Egypt jointly agree to facilitate the transitional to independence (1953). The first elections in the Sudan are won by the National Unionist Party, led by Ismail al-Azhari (1954). He campaigned on a policy of merging Sudan with Egypt to achieve the 'unity of the Nile Valley'. His views begin to change, however, after becoming prime minister. He thus oversaw the transition toward an independent Sudanese state. Only a few months before the agreed date of independence, violence erupts in the south (August 1955). Violence flared with riots and army mutinies. The non-Muslim largely Christian majority in the south feared domination by the Arab north. Under Egyptian-British rule a secular regime was in force. Once independent, the Arabs would be able to impose Sharia on the south. And this is precisely what occurred. The more numerous Muslim Arabs attempted to transform the Sudan into a fundamentalist Islamic state, including the Christian south. The Mahdist tradition was important in the independent Sudan. Two of the main parties were led by direct descendants of the Mahdi. The desire of the Muslim north to impose Sharia have led to two separate and long-running conflicts. First in the north, a conflict developed between religious and secular rivals. Secularists in the early years of independence promoted Marxist economic policy. The other developed in the south as the northern-dominated south attempted to impose Sharia on the Christian south. This developed into a full-blown civil war when insurgent groups in Equatoria fielded combat units to prevent Muslim domination. In th ensuing civil war, the Arab north possessed most of the modern weapons. Open warfare broke out (1983). Air attacks were carried out on southern villages. An estimated 2 million people were killed, mostly Christian civilians. Women and children were seized and brought north as slaves, another aspect of the Mahdist tradition and the widely accepted belief that the Koran condones the enslavement of non-Muslims. Sudanese Arabs launched a new campaign against Africans, this time in the western province of Darfur This time the targets were Muslim Africans. Sudanese officials have been implicated in genocide.


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Created: 5:05 AM 1/1/2010
Last updated: 6:45 PM 12/5/2015